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Patient care duties don't stop when the sun goes down. Working the night shift can present several unique challenges for your personal and professional routine. According to a 2019 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 15% of all wage and salary workers have an irregular schedule, including 4% who regularly work the night shift.
Working the night shift can affect your natural circadian rhythm, which in turn can affect your cognitive performance. The night shift also has several advantages as it is often a slower pace, less management in the hospital, and greater autonomy.
Our nurse contributors explore 12 ways you can prepare, survive, and even thrive on your first nursing night shifts.
12 Ways to Thrive as a Night Shift Nurse
If you've been hired to work straight night shifts or are rotating across the day and night shifts, you might be concerned about how you'll manage to work all night while the rest of the world is sleeping. While you may have pulled the occasional all-nighter studying or out with friends, working a consistent night schedule is far different.
If you're preparing for your first job on the night shift, or you're a veteran looking for more ways to survive and thrive in night shift nursing, these 12 tips can be just what you need.
1. Make Sleep a Priority
It may seem like common sense, but it can be challenging when you're trying to sleep while the rest of the world is awake. During sleep, your heart rate slows, energy expenditure drops, and hormone levels change. Most important, your brain activity shows clear patterns scientists associate with memory consolidation and detoxification.
You can support your health and feel better when you prioritize getting enough sleep each day. Your body produces melatonin at night to help you sleep. When exposed to bright light, even blue light from your phone, your body shuts off production, making it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
This means that sleeping during the day is fighting your circadian rhythm, which helps determine when melatonin is released and shut off. Latrina Walden, a nurse practitioner with many years of experience, offers several pro tips to prioritize your sleep.
"Honestly, think of yourself like a newborn and put yourself on a sleep schedule," she says. "Blackout curtains, earplugs, and an eye mask will help to block out any sunlight and noise so that you can get good sleep."
2. Stick With a Sleep Schedule
Shannyn McCauley is a licensed practical nurse who began her career as a certified nursing assistant. In her years of experience, she's found that starting a sleep schedule about one week before your first shift helps your body accommodate more easily.
"Decide when your new bedtime will be and what time you need to get up for work," she says.
She continues, "Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. It can be tempting to switch back to a 'normal' schedule on your days off, but the more you deviate from the schedule, the harder it is to be awake and alert the following workday."
3. Keep Moving at Night
Once you're at work, you may find the wee hours of the morning are the most difficult to stay alert. Walden finds that when she keeps moving, it helps. If you get sleeping, get moving.
"Some people find naps helpful during breaks (if you get a break), and others don't. Only you will know for you," she says.
She also recommends getting outside for a minute or two to breathe the night air as "it will help during those rough moments."
The same is true after the shift is over. If you have something that must be done, it's better to do it immediately. If you need to make a run to the store or a phone call before sleeping, do it first thing after getting off work.
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4. Keep a Consistent Meal Schedule
You may have heard that working the night shift is hard on your waistline. People who work the night shift burn less energy and may eat to stay awake. This increases the risk of weight gain, as researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder found.
It's more important than ever to maintain a consistent and healthy meal schedule when you're night shift nursing. Walden recommends eating a healthy meal before your shift.
"Avoid heavy fat-laden foods — it's just going to slow you down, make you tired, and mess with your waistline," she says.
5. Plan on a Healthy Snack for Energy
During the night, you may want to grab a healthy snack or a cup of caffeine to help stay alert. Walden recommends making a healthy caffeine choice, such as green tea instead of an energy drink. Take care not to drink it after 3 a.m., or you may have trouble falling asleep when you get home.
Your night shift survival pack can minimize insulin spikes and provide your body with fuel. For instance, consider packing a light meal or snack for a mid-shift break. Steer clear of junk food and high carbohydrate snacks like donuts and cake. They may give you a quick boost, but it doesn't last long or fuel your body in the right ways.
Bananas, vegetables and hummus, yogurt, and apples can be better options for your night shift snacks. Also, a salad, roasted chicken and vegetables, or yogurt and granola can make a healthier light meal.
6. Stay Hydrated
Drinking enough water to stay hydrated is crucial to maintaining your body temperature, preventing infection, and improving cognition and mood.
Just 2% dehydration can impair attention, memory, and psychomotor skills. Staying hydrated improves weight loss efforts, detoxification, and leads to fewer headaches. These are all necessary for nursing on the night shift.
Everyone has different water requirements based on water loss, food eaten, and body mass. It's best to measure your hydration by the color of your urine. If your urine is dark with a strong odor, you are dehydrated. The color should be light yellow, like the color of straw.
7. Plan Ahead
The name of the game on the night shift is planning. No matter what aspect of the shift you consider, it's essential that you plan. For example, all of the following will require planning:
- Your sleep schedule
- Interaction with your friends
- Dates as a night shift nurse
- Getting business done
Some nurses find it helpful to maintain a consistent schedule each week. For example, always grocery shopping on Thursday morning and staying up after your shift on Monday to make phone calls to businesses open during the day.
Only you can determine the days and times that work best for you. However, you must plan ahead to ensure you get enough sleep, eat well, and can function during nursing on the night shift.
8. Enjoy Your Night Shift Colleague's Company
Walden recommends making friends with your night shift colleagues.
"I'm just going to say it: Night shift usually has a better sense of team spirit on the floor, so this part won't be hard," she says.
She also points out that nursing is difficult. Your colleagues can help you throughout the shift and understand when you have trouble staying alert. They can offer advice about socializing with friends when they're awake and you're sleeping. They can also be an encouraging, understanding sounding board.
9. Anticipate the Morning Rush
New night shift nurses find the morning rush a surprise. You've worked all night, and the morning can't come soon enough. Then suddenly, it's here. Walden recommends you anticipate the tasks that must be done before the day shift arrives.
"Morning comes at you fast, and it's usually always chaos," she says. "So if you know what needs to be done, you can start doing them early on and preparing so you are not running around like a chicken with your head cut off."
10. Set Boundaries
It is crucial that you learn how to set boundaries with your friends and family, and you learn how to say "no."
Night shift nursing means you'll be sleeping during the day when the rest of the world is up and about. Your friends may try to call during the middle of the day, and your family may need to be quiet while you're sleeping.
Walden recommends that you are prepared to put yourself first.
"Rest will be so important here, and you will need to always have it at the forefront of your mind," she says.
Explain to your friends and family how your life will be different when you are working the night shift. Turn your phone off while you're sleeping. If you are expecting packages or get a lot of people knocking on your door, consider a sign on the front door that lets people know to be quiet.
11. Keep a Consistent Exercise Schedule
Seeing a pattern here? Consistency is key in night shift nursing, and exercise is no exception. Exercise is essential for good health. Although you may be moving throughout your shift, this is called nonexercise movement. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend regular physical activity and exercise for adults and children.
Adults need 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise and two days of strength training, if you are able. This can be spread across five days in 30-minute increments.
McCauley also recommends lots of movement and exercise during the night when you're experiencing times of sleepiness, if you're able.
"Walk the halls, do some squats, dance to your music, whatever gets your blood pumping," she says.
12. Remember Your Self-Care
Self-care is essential for night shift nurses. This can help you avoid burnout and keep your motivation levels high.
McCauley suggests establishing a wind-down routine for nurse after shifts or decompressing in the car on the way home. Try listening to calm music, practicing yoga when you get home, or writing in a journal.
Use a consistent bedtime routine so your body knows it's time to start falling asleep. You might spend 10 minutes soaking in a bath, reading a book, or doing some light stretches. Steer clear of television and smartphones before sleep and stick to your schedule.
You may be working the night shift, but that doesn't mean you can't socialize. Stay in touch with friends and family. Close connections are important to your mental and emotional health. Remember to exercise regularly if you're able, practice mindfulness, and manage your stress levels.
Stress can cause headaches, sleepless days, jaw pain, and frequent mood swings. Try to find a way to do something you enjoy each day. You might read a book, exercise with friends, practice meditation, garden, or walk the dog.
Meet Our Contributors
Latrina Walden, NP
Latrina Walden, NP, has been a professor and founded Latrina Walden™ Exam Solutions Her experiences and professional expertise from her years of practice combined with her love of teaching help guide students through their transition from being a registered nurse to becoming a nurse practitioner.
Shannyn McCauley, LPN
Shannyn McCauley is a licensed practical nurse (LPN) from central Pennsylvania. She previously worked as a certified nursing assistant and has been working as an LPN since 2015. McCauley worked in various nursing homes for six years, and in January 2022, decided on a new career path. She opened her own business, working in home healthcare and as a certified health coach.
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